Black Titli

They think they understand things because they become familiar with them. This is only superficial knowledge. It is the knowledge of the astronomer who knows the names of the stars, the botanist who knows the classification of the leaves and flowers, the artist who knows the aesthetics of green and red. This is not to know nature itself- the earth and sky, green and red. Astronomer, botanist, and artist have done no more than grasp impressions and interpret them, each within the vault of his own mind. The more involved they become with the activity of the intellect, the more they set themselves apart and the more difficult it becomes to live naturally.

Rise

Uncertain, timid, guarded
taking as little space as possible
a predefined space
an implied space
for a thousand years
is it claustrophobic?
or ugly? or unfair?
or isolating? or insulting?
or binding? or plain slavery?
is it terrifying in a hundred different ways?
is it even visible?
sometimes, the worst prisons are invisible
the ones we vet used to
prisons of apathy of inertia
of hopelessness and of 'tradition'.

The space is invaluable
it has to be bigger
the emotion - anxieties, tears, love, fears, warmth
is precious
the cold world thirsts for it
is tortured for the lack of it
the art - humor, ideas, perspectives, joy
break the tedium
the sombre formality
the ridiculousness of tradition
please - rise rise rise!

Burning Blue Eyes

Some incoherent words
shouted out with intensity.
It is impossible to say
if it's excitement or anger
and the only reason to believe
that it's something serious
is the eyes
blazing and burning into mine
the unkempt face, the beard
clothes too big, pants falling off
a stench that hits my senses
do the words mean anything?
no one is waiting around to listen
is he sane?
that's an absurd question
this man in the street downtown
this busy street
in this 'developed' country
his look, his voice, his eyes, his presence
he is a ghost, an anomaly
that must be ignored
people pass by - kids, teens, couples, families, seniors
collectively ignoring
but those eyes, that intensity is burned into me
they have something to say
I hope they're angry

The Friend

We sat across the table.
he said, cut off your hands.
they are always poking at things.
they might touch me.
I said yes.

Food grew cold on the table.
he said, burn your body.
it is not clean and smells like sex.
it rubs my mind sore.
I said yes.

I love you, I said.
That’s very nice, he said
I like to be loved,
that makes me happy.
Have you cut off your hands yet?

Marge Piercy

Two Legs Bad, Six Legs Good—Sontag Worse!

Am I a redundant human being? A question asked by many a novel—many a novelist—but rarely so explicitly, and not usually on the front cover. But that’s the title of Mela Hartwig’s novella, written in 1931 and now reissued by Dalkey Press, and it works like a life buoy, alerting us to a writer drowning in obscurity. Born in Vienna in 1893, Hartwig was an actress before becoming a writer; she married Dr. Robert Spira, an art historian and critic, and when the Anschluss came, the couple escaped to London, where they befriended Virginia Woolf. That much the publisher tells you; it’s difficult to find more. There was another early novel with an equally provocative title, Das Weib ist ein Nichts (The Woman Is a Nothing), which became a scandal (and almost a Greta Garbo movie). And I was pleased to unearth an issue of the Association of Jewish Refugees newsletter reporting Mela’s seventieth birthday, a short paragraph sprinkled with poignant information (“When she came to this country in 1938 she encountered insurmountable difficulties in carrying on her activities as a writer. This frustration caused her to find another outlet for her artistic inclinations, which was independent of her German mother tongue: painting”). The next reference in the same organ is her 1967 obituary. In the English-speaking universe she seems to exist mainly in the blinding contrails of Woolf, who used her influence to help release Dr. Spira from a brief internment on the Isle of Man, and came again to the couple’s aid when some paintings Robert had brought from Vienna were judged to be fakes (Woolf promised to get Sir Kenneth Clark, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, to take a look at them). We have a footnote: a cache of letters between Woolf and Vita Sackville-West was recently discovered in a hidden drawer in Sissinghurst, one of which was found to mention Mela in passing, a stray ball lobbed between two pros, long lost in the high grass. Was Mela grateful to be the object of Virginia’s well-connected generosity? Or did she feel patronized, pained by the status gap between them? Friend or frenemy? You’d expect a little volatility from the woman who opened a novel this way:

I’m a secretary. I have nearly twelve years of experience. My shorthand is first rate and I’m an excellent typist. I don’t mention it to brag. I just want to show that I amount to something . . . This is the story that I want to write. Though, it’s so laughably mundane, so incontestably banal, that it’s really no story at all.

The story, such as it is, is an oppressive, monologic rant, not dissimilar to those of Hartwig’s compatriot Thomas Bernhard: the sort of writing that seems dictated from a Viennese chaise longue, though without any hope of therapeutic closure. Never mind Anna O.; meet Aloisia Schmidt: self-hater, compulsive masturbator, narcissistic manic-depressive, all-round good-time gal:

I’m neither pretty nor ugly. My face is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, neither attractive nor unattractive. It’s a face you simply don’t see. It goes without saying that I wish I were beautiful. That’s hardly a confession worth making. However, I swear that sometimes I want to be ugly too—revoltingly ugly. Of course, I can’t explain why I want to be revoltingly ugly. Perhaps it’s because people would at least notice me then.

At first the comparison with Bernhard is depressing: why do male writers channel rage into sadism while their female counterparts collapse into masochism? After hearing of Aloisia’s unhappy and furious childhood (“I don’t mean to make myself sound any more neurotic than I already have—who am I to have neuroses anyway?—but I have to admit that even as a child I suffered when someone didn’t pay attention to me”), the reader peeks fearfully through her fingers as Aloisia reaches adulthood and men enter the scene:

I think, in fact, that this was what impressed me most about Emil K.: the fact that I only understood half of what he was saying, most of the time . . . I couldn’t understand why an intelligent person like him would stoop to associate with someone like me. It wouldn’t always be enough for him that I had a pretty face. If he was sticking around, it could only be because he still hadn’t found me out.

Aloisia is an accomplished self-saboteur (“I think I have a special talent for seeing the failure I deserve behind every success I might have stumbled into: I had every reason to be content, but wasn’t”) who even in her retelling of events doubts her ability to do precisely that. The sentence “I don’t know if I’m making myself clear”—usually following a paragraph of perfect clarity—keeps coming back, like a stutter.

In an online review, someone called Kate calls Hartwig a “Viennese Carrie Bradshaw from Hell.” It’s a smart comparison, although I think Kate means to condemn her and I’m more inclined to praise. While struggling along with Aloisia—by turns delighted and infuriated, as I once felt watching Carrie—it occurred to me that people consistently misunderstand the logic of these feminine narratives, wherein what looks like self-abasement is very often an inverse form of self-display and self-assertion. That it should be so often mistaken is not surprising: every effort is made to make the self-abasement as persuasive as possible. Think of medieval mystics offering to rip holes in their chests so that Jesus might enter, or present-day comediennes and columnists tearing strips off themselves—death by a thousand self-deprecations. And yet don’t they all, as Orwell put it—describing the “sheer egoism” of writers—“live their own lives to the end”? Doesn’t Carrie always do, in the end, exactly what she pleases?

So why write it otherwise? Perhaps because there is no clear feminine language for triumph, no “bragging rights,” no external symbols that bespeak luck and power. We can’t, as the saying goes, pull it out and slap it on the table. The male narrative ego has never lacked avatars—from the labors of Hercules to the complaints of Portnoy—but female egos, for so long without access to mainstream narrative avenues, seem to have compensated by charting strange and indirect side roads. Heroic tales that don’t sound heroic. Self-performance that looks like self-obliteration. But egos we do have. We want, and we get. It’s simply a devious sort of wanting, always changing, adapting to circumstance—or, better put—always apparently reacting. For example, sometimes Aloisia tells us she is “neither pretty nor ugly”; sometimes she claims she is repulsive; at other times she appears to consider herself the very picture of fabulousness. It’s never an established fact in her mind. It depends upon whom she’s reacting to—

Of course I knew that being near me excited him. I didn’t doubt that he found my face and perhaps my body uncommonly appealing. And I even agreed on this point. I also believed my face and body were worthy of being admired; back then I was convinced (because he was convinced) that I was extremely pretty.

—or does it? Women like Aloisia tend to draw from their more conscious sisters a well-worn critique: these women exist only in relation to men! Who are they, without men? Aren’t they redundant human beings? But then you look closer at these “men,” and a slightly different story emerges. Aloisia’s men are like Carrie’s, they come and go interchangeably and never really shift her from her course; they prove to be paper-thin, ciphers. They are caught in an overheated performance of female self-realization that invents not only itself but also the men to whom it is supposedly reacting. Whether it’s masochism or sadism is less interesting than its overt egotism.

Hartwig knows all this:

It’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself. Do you really think that people—including me—aren’t all sometimes or often or maybe even always dissatisfied with themselves in some way? Do you really think that people—including me—ever really manage to get through life without finding a way to balance their gifts and their pride? That people can ever avoid being humbled by the world and finally accepting themselves as they are? But you’re acting as if you’ve been singled out.

That’s Aloisia’s first love, Emil K., calling her out on what today we might call “her bullshit.” He spells it out in a way even Carrie could understand: “You’re obviously only happy when you’re unhappy.” And that’s what makes this book intriguing, despite its sometimes clumsy phrasing and Freudian posturing: it’s not simply an expression of feminine “hysteria” but an arch critique of it, from the inside. It recasts its much-trumpeted “redundancy” as a vital kind of agency, for it is Aloisia’s self-obsession that powers and determines everything. I don’t think this makes her, or Carrie, particularly admirable, but it does explain the pleasure their narrative arcs provide. Power trips are pleasurable. And what power! Not for a moment are we permitted to withdraw from Aloisia; not only is she not redundant, but other people can only hope for significance in terms of their relation to her, real or imagined. She invents entire relationships with men who are barely aware of her existence. She breaks the hearts of men who adore her by insisting they don’t. From behind a curtain she watches the woman she most admires be rejected by the man she most wants; later the woman shoots herself and the man despairs. And Aloisia herself? Well, despite that title, as the story closes she seems to be the only one left standing:

I’m still employed at the construction firm. I’m known for my first-rate shorthand and my excellent typing skills . . . One colleague, an accountant, has pursued me quite eagerly, and has even proposed marriage. I don’t mention it to brag. I only bring it up to show that there are still people who think better of me than I think of myself. If I were a man, I certainly wouldn’t find myself desirable.

Reader, don’t you believe it.

•   •   •

Given her difficulties with the opposite sex, I wonder whether Aloisia wouldn’t prefer to be a silverfish? You see, the male silverfish leaves a sperm packet hanging from a silk thread attached to a twig, which the female picks up later with her genital opening. After she’s drained the packet, she eats it. Zero emotional fallout. This I learned from Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World, by Marlene Zuk, a book that has given me almost more insect anecdotes than I know what to do with. At dinner, they don’t just end the conversation, they end dinner. It is a powerful feeling: I recommend it. Whatever the person sitting opposite thinks he knows about insects, after reading this book I guarantee you will know more. He will say, “Oh, sure, some wasps inject their cockroach prey with a paralyzing poison which allows them to drag the roach back to the wasp nest and keeps it fresh.” You will sigh and look down at the butter dish. You will inform your friend—not without humility—that there exists a jewel wasp who rather than using simple paralysis injects the roach with “a judicious sting inside [its] head, so that its nervous system, and legs, still function well enough to allow it to walk on its own.” Then the wasp leads the roach to its doom, effectively “hijack[ing its] free will.” Zombie-cockroach! And PS: if you ever see a silent male cricket failing to attract any females, it’s not because he’s shy, it’s because a fly has, at some earlier point, deposited some tiny larvae on him, and one or more of the resulting maggots have gone into his body, eaten him from the inside, grown as big as the cricket itself, and now live inside him. Zombie-cricket-fly! Game, set, match: you.

But there is much more to this book than the opportunity to lord it over your acquaintances. It’s a chance to look at the way genes behave, free from the wishful thinking, cultural assumption and ideological prejudice we sometimes bring to the study of our own species. What gives insects the edge here is the great variety of their genomes—“A monkey is a lot more like a mouse than a grasshopper is like a flea”—and their profoundly alien ways, which makes it more difficult for us to anthropomorphize them, though we do give it our best shot, as we’ll see.

There is a trend, in the arts and social sciences, to affect a sort of disdain for the “naivety” of purely genetic explanations of behavior. We are, finally, animals of culture, the argument goes, and the idea that genes can be point-for-point attached to human behavioral characteristics is a category error. In a sense, Zuk comes to a similar conclusion, but for her, the argument that genes can’t be “associated de novo with a single trait and that trait only” is not an anti-science argument; it’s a more nuanced reading of the science. For genes associated with one behavior are also associated with myriad other behaviors, as well as continually differing in expression depending on environmental factors such as nutrition and chemical manipulation. She demonstrates with honeybees. The dogma used to be that honeybees were made, not born, via the consumption of royal jelly. In fact it’s not just what you eat, it’s also the way you’re born—but more importantly, it’s the interaction between these two factors: “In honeybees, different nutrients interact with the genome to switch some developmental pathways on and off.” Having the queen gene makes a larva more likely to become a queen but doesn’t guarantee it: honeybees are “exquisitely sensitive to small changes in their environment.” Pumping CO2 into a chamber of virgin queens and workers for ten minutes creates immediate differences in gene expression; ovary development is increased in the queens and suppressed in the workers. Even when the genes are the same (queens and workers share at least two thousand genes), they express themselves differently in the brains of the two kinds of individuals. The picture is, Zuk argues, “both more complex and more genetically determined.” In some ways it’s a messy, unsatisfying picture: so much of our genetic material turns out to be redundant, non-functioning, left over from earlier incarnations. We, like the insects, are walking junkyards of our own evolutionary pasts.

But in another sense, the picture is more richly colored than we ever could have imagined, with our hermeneutic tendency to interpret phenotype evidence in genotype black and white. Take the bees (again). Zuk manages generally to be cheerful about our ignorance of insect biology, but she also has a limit, and that limit is Bee Movie, in which Jerry Seinfeld plays a male honeybee. “There are errors and errors,” she complains, “poetic license versus jarring ineptitude.” It is not much comfort to her that Aristotle made a similar assumption about the gender of bees, and so did Ben Franklin and the nineteenth-century poet Charles Stuart Calverley (“When, his thighs with sweetness laden,/ From the meadow comes the bee”). It’s a predictable error: the big bee, served by everyone in the hive, surely had to be the “king” bee, and the ones lying about doing nothing had to be female, and the ones with the ability to sting, again, must be male. But then why were the males doing all the childcare? That part perplexed Aristotle to such a degree that he “eventually concluded that bees might have the organs of both sexes in a single individual.” Zuk’s point is that by making these assumptions not only do you get a skewed version of the insect world’s sex roles, you further distort the roles in your own world. Also, you simply “miss out on stuff.” In the insect world, fiction has nothing on the truth. How wild that (male) drones are born of unfertilized eggs, thus making sisters more closely related to each other than to their mothers!

Interesting that almost all the anthropomorphic errors Zuk recounts in this book are gender-related. She has fun talking us through “army ants,” also female, whom generations cast as blood-lusting masculine warriors: what’s really going on, Zuk counters, is extreme predation, “and predation is not waging war, it is acquiring food.” Less like marauders on the rampage, more like a crowd of mums tearing through Whole Foods. But there I go, anthropomorphizing. It’s hard not to. And isn’t the title an invitation to apply insect lessons to human life? Maybe we can explore our connections without smothering our differences: “[B]ecause we shared a common ancestor with insects so long ago, we can use them as a way to explore how we arrive at similar-seeming destinations with such radically different modes of transportation.” I kept this in mind as I read of infanticide among beetles:

Its documented occurrence in insects somehow didn’t seem relevant to people, perhaps because we don’t automatically see ourselves mirrored in their behavior . . . [N]ow it is clear that at least some of the time it is probably adaptive in nature, because rearing young when life is harsh, or at the expense of the parents’ well-being, may be too big a gamble for it to be continued . . . If the going gets tough, the tough—and the smart—stop taking care of their children.

Zuk doesn’t make this analogy, but my thoughts turned to those “witch” children of West Africa, murdered by their families. When you have ten mouths to feed and food for only four, maybe the folk tale is not the cause but the cover. How else can the human animal explain to itself its most brutal survival choices?

Given that Zuk’s subject is so inherently engaging, it’s a shame about all the lame scientist jokes made in the name, I suppose, of “popularization.” When, in the 1600s, Jan Swammerdam, a Dutch microscopist, cuts open a “king” bee to prove it’s female, we get this: “‘Hey, did you hear? Ol’ Jan Swammerdam is cutting open a bee next Tuesday! Who knows what peculiar structures he will reveal! Let’s go watch—I’ll buy the mead.’ Do you suppose he sold tickets?” There’re also a few strange attempts at “relevance.” When telling us of the extraordinary ability of bees to “learn to recognize individual human faces,” Zuk goes off on a flight of “war on terror” fancy: “I was seized by the image of a chamber with a bee at airport security, for instance, scrutinizing the faces of passengers to look for matches with photos of known terrorists. Whether this would work better than some of the current efforts is an interesting question.” Professor, you had me at “sperm packet.”

There is such a thing as the flightless blister beetle; it is found in the sand dunes of the southwestern United States. They lay their eggs on a plant called the milk vetch, which it happens they can’t survive on. Instead they parasitize a single species of bee that also lives in the desert. Now get this: the newly hatched larvae, hundreds of them, gather together on the tip of a plant. Viewed collectively they look like the female version of that bee I just mentioned; they even emit something that smells like her sex pheromone. So the male bee comes along and mistakes this pulsing fake for his mate; before he gets wise, a few opportunistic larvae jump on his back. Later, when he finds his real mate, the larvae transfer on to her, and subsequently to her nest, and grow there, feeding off her stash of pollen and nectar. Why am I telling you this? Because it reminds me of the life cycle in Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, by Sigrid Nunez. Sontag must have had a hell of a lot of nectar; so many people continue to grow fat on it. What is the relationship between blister beetles and bees? Friends? Frenemies? Nunez walks that line in a cruel, stylish belles-lettres style that is only ever vulgar in its sentiments, never in the sentences themselves. You sense she wants you to morally judge what she’s done here, and that all her defenses are already prepared—but that feels like an exhausting way to approach this book, a sprung trap laid by a needy author. No, what’s interesting is how alien a sight we seem to find a female intellectual, poking and prodding her with rumor and curiosity—even after she’s died—as if she were a fat king bee of whose gender we’re never quite sure. Did she ever cook? Did she never clean? Was she maternal at all? Was she attracted to men and women equally? Did she treat them differently? Did she dye her hair? Did she watch her weight? Was she vain? Did she truly have no sense of humor? Was she really sleeping with her son? (This, the shabbiest of rumors, repeated by Nunez, is an example of the vulgarity of which I spoke.) Poor Susan. We all have our faults, but not everyone gets pinned and mounted like a bug to a board and held up for all to see.

Feel Free, Zadie Smith

Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner

Strange to be writing on painting the day after John Berger died. In fact I was asked to do this a long time ago, I am far past my deadline, but it is only now, the day after Berger died, that I find myself sitting down to write it. Berger was ninety. I would say Balthasar Denner’s Alte Frau is ninety, too, or thereabouts. I never met Berger. This summer I considered a trip, with a mutual friend, to his home in Antony, in the southern suburbs of Paris, but I was staying in the sixth, the city was boiling, the children were with me, and in an example of the kind of wishful thinking that characterizes middle age, I decided there would be another opportunity, another summer. Honestly, I was a little nervous to meet him. What could I say to such a man? What could I offer that wouldn’t fall short? I felt something of what I feel now, before the Alte Frau, or rather before a small postcard reproduction of it. Who am I to speak of this painting? I have her propped up on a little book-chair of violent vermilion. But now, mindful of Berger, I take her off and place her on the dark brown walnut of my kitchen table, and then try her once more against the black card of a document folder. The effect is different each time: she is at her angriest framed by red; resigned and historical against the grain of the wood; an acute memento mori backed by black. But her real context, her true backdrop, is me, the viewer. I chose her after all, from a pile of postcards depicting masterpieces from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a stack at least six inches high. I passed through many horses and gods and pietàs and angels and landscapes and crucifixions to get to her. I decided in her favor, over greater paintings and more striking ones, only stopping at her, because—as the layman has it—she spoke to me. I am a laywoman: that is part of the worry. A casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert—not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted. I have always had this uneasiness before paintings. And though I am certainly more confident now than when I was young, I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art, the type to frantically consult the catalogue before daring to look up. I don’t trust myself in front of a painting as I do when I open a book. What do I need to know in order to look at this object?

Many years ago, on a trip to the Uffizi with my father, this baleful tendency was thrown into relief by my father’s own more relaxed attitude. He was a great fan of Berger, or rather, he was a great fan of Berger’s 1972 TV show Ways of Seeing, which he referenced throughout my childhood whenever art came up in any context: school permission slips for a gallery visit, a poster advertising the latest Monet blockbuster, a conservative art critic’s column in the Evening Standard: “Well, of course, Berger showed them! He told them what’s what! He turned over the establishment, the Kenneth Clarks and so on. Art’s for everybody—not just the privileged few!” Long before I came across Berger myself I had a childish fondness for him, as the source of my father’s apparent late-life confidence in front of a painting. My father had a way of seeing that was not mine, and our ways clashed as we stood there in the Uffizi, in front of the Venus of Urbino. I was reading about the duke who had commissioned it. My father meanwhile was remarking on how beautiful she was. Not the painting—Venus herself. What an attractive body she had, lithe, with good breasts and nice legs, and so on. I was nineteen, easily excruciated. It seemed to me he was almost aroused by the painting, and I wished, like the little housemaid in the back of that famous picture, for a nearby linen chest to bury my head in. What a bluestocking I was—and how wrong-headed. Surely many learned things can be said about the Venus of Urbino but if you don’t open your eyes and recognize her first and foremost as an erotic object how can you claim that you’ve seen her at all?

•   •   •

I’m not going to make that mistake with the Alte Frau. I am writing about her first and foremost because she is an old woman and therefore a destination point on a journey that lies before me. For I have finished being a young woman. Now I embark upon the process of becoming an old one, a long process, to be sure—I don’t pretend I am very far along in it—but it would be another kind of delusion to imagine I haven’t begun. I choose to bring this reproduction of the Alte Frau into my visual field in the hope that she will speak to me of age through the medium of paint. Paintings, Berger believed, speak to us as elements of a language, a modern language, made possible by their reproduction. We don’t go to them any longer as pilgrims went to icons to see them in their particular sacred context—instead they come to us. And for a generation of non-experts, working-class aesthetes, generalists, TV viewers, anxious gallery-wanderers, Berger offered a long-overdue process of demystification. He urged us to throw aside the school-taught sensations of high-culture anxiety and holy awe. They were to be replaced with a fresh and invigorating mix of skepticism and pleasure. Skepticism toward the false aura of the masterwork (which largely consisted, in his view, of a toxic mix of capital value and sham religiosity). Pleasure at the meaningful channel that can open up—if we are attentive—between the decontextualized painting and our own sensibilities.

What interests me most about the channel between the Alte Frau and myself is how utterly indifferent she is to it. As far as eighteenth-century portraits of women are concerned this is unusual. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that portraits of women in the European tradition are constructed around the concept of availability. The Venus of Urbino, for example, offers eternal sexual receptiveness—to the viewer. Everything about her body is arranged in response to our erotic attention. You don’t need to be an art theorist to know this. Any woman looking at it can tell you that no woman has ever lain on a bed like that without being conscious of a gaze: actual, projected or internalized. “Men look at women,” wrote Berger. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” So it is with the Venus of Urbino. She exists to be observed, and what consciousness she has is restricted to consciousness of this. I see you looking at me.

The Alte Frau, on the other hand, seems to me some way past such considerations. For one, she looks resolutely away. No matter how I angle her or move myself in relation to her, I will never catch her eye. Whether I look at her or not appears to be a matter of complete irrelevance, to her. Berger, on Woman: “From earliest childhood, she is told to survey herself continually. Behind every glance is a judgment . . . Those who are judged not beautiful are not beautiful—those who are, are given the prize. The prize is to be owned—that is to say: available.” But the Alte Frau is unavailable. Age has put her outside the bounds of the contest. And perhaps (this painting suggests, to me) it is not so awful to be, once and for all, placed outside of that contest. It is fascinating to learn that when Balthasar Denner showed the Alte Frau to a pair of respected Dutch painters and art critics—Adriaen van der Werff and Karel van Mander—they were so stunned by it they could compare it only to the enigma of the Mona Lisa. Is it possible that what men consider enigmatic in women is actually agency? As in: If she does not want me, what the hell does she want? In room after room at the Louvre we will find painted women receptive to our gaze, applying for it, offering themselves up for judgment, whether it is the judgment of Paris or Cupid or Brian who just this minute got off the Eurostar. But the most famous portrait in the place, the exceptional portrait, is the one of the woman who doesn’t appear to want our gaze or need it or even to know we’re there. The woman who is in her own world, occupied with her own unknowable thoughts, though she is every hour surrounded by iPhone-wielding tourists. The woman who has ceased to be—or never was—concerned with whether or not you are looking at her. The woman with other things on her mind. Who has, precisely, mind! And like that famous enigma, the Alte Frau, too, has mind. Her thoughts are inaccessible, and not to do with us, but you can see they exist. Whatever concerns I may bring to her—I’m forty-one! I’m scared of aging!—it’s clear she’s heard it all before. Lived it, had the children, lost the children, won and lost the men, the women, the world. Nothing new under the sun.

Of course I am reading the Alte Frau through a certain channel of my own creation. I look at her spotted fur and rich silk and see the stubborn commitment to luxury that so many rich women maintain once their flesh has betrayed them, choosing to replace the crumpled, disloyal skin with a new and more glorious surface—fur, silk—which the ruthless logic of capital tells them cannot be devalued as they themselves have been. And I see the great unsexing. The disappearance of gender, over time. To look, in the end, like neither man nor woman. To look only: old. A state that is here neither mourned nor celebrated, only firmly stated, an undeniable destination to which the viewer, too, will travel, if they survive, if they are as firm and resolute as the Alte Frau. I see age without illusion. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

•   •   •

It happens that Denner showed his Alte Frau to prospective clients as proof of the quality of his work. It was his calling card. When he took it to London, it caused such a sensation that it had a steady stream of rich and influential visitors, including the ambassador of Austria, who persuaded the artist to sell his famous old lady to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, a deal for which Denner received 5,875 guilders. A simple question occurs: Why? Why was she so popular? It’s a question that does not occur in the case of the Venus of Urbino, nor with the countless other portraits of beauty, grace, sex and feminine vitality that define the European tradition of female portraiture during this period. Easy to imagine how pleasant it must have been for the Duke of Urbino to stand each morning before his Venus and find her still making eyes at him, ever young and available, even as the wife he commissioned it for aged and wrinkled as wives will tend to do . . . But what did the Holy Roman Emperor—or anyone else—want with a shriveled old woman? It is not like other portraits in its genre. It is not a comforting portrait of a grandmotherly type. Nor is it a heartening symbolic depiction of wisdom, or at least, if she is indeed one of the less deceived, it is not a form of knowledge that appears to have brought with it much peace or satisfaction, as we hope wisdom will. She does not have a peaceful or contented look. That pursed-up little mouth! She is not looking with patient optimism—as with so many portraits of old women—just past the viewer, toward Christ, who awaits her on the other side of the veil that separates life from death. Nor is she a comic grotesque, a warning. No. She simply is. To paint her, it is believed, Denner used a magnifying glass, and it is through this process that he caught every patch of facial fuzz, those wrinkles deep and fine, each spidery broken vein and wisp of white hair. The painting was a boast—of technical expertise, of mastery, and by extension of the superior taste of its owner. My court painter is better than yours. The Alte Frau is the latest thing in portraiture: the King wants it. The human subject may be unappealing but as aesthetic object the painting makes an impressive claim to a new way of seeing: microscopically, scientifically, hyperrealistically, non-symbolically. Just as the old woman has reached a point in her life where she simply is—without explanation, defense, application for pity or even understanding—so the paint itself seems to claim an ultimate thusness. Marveling at the technical achievement, proud of scooping such a masterpiece from under the nose of so many deep-pocketed Englishmen, I imagine Charles VI well pleased with his acquisition. Up until the moment he hangs her. Then he finds himself somewhat unnerved. Who is this old woman on his wall? Who cost him so many guilders and yet makes no attempt to please? Every time he passes she annoys him a little more. Why does she insist on looking past him, and so severely? She who has no interest in or need of him. Unimpressed, unreceptive. Oh, he still talks her up for curious visitors: here is technical mastery, here is a dear old soul prepared to shuffle off her mortal coil and meet her maker, here is a good woman awaiting her heavenly reward. His guests smile and nod but they’re not convinced. Unsettled, they pass on to the next picture. The Alte Frau couldn’t care less. It matters not what any soul who looks at her thinks of her now—you, me, or the Holy Roman Emperor. She is beyond it all. Beyond!

Feel Free, Zadie Smith

Find your Beach

Across the way from our apartment—on Houston, I guess—there’s a new wall ad. The site is forty feet high, twenty feet wide. It changes once or twice a year. Whatever’s on that wall is my view: I look at it more than the sky or the new World Trade Center, more than the water towers, the passing cabs. It has a subliminal effect. Last semester it was a spot for high-end vodka, and while I wrangled children into their snowsuits, chock-full of domestic resentment, I’d find myself dreaming of cold Martinis.

Before that came an ad so high end I couldn’t tell what it was for. There was no text—or none that I could see—and the visual was of a yellow firebird set upon a background of hellish red. It seemed a gnomic message, deliberately placed to drive a sleepless woman mad. Once, staring at it with a newborn in my arms, I saw another mother, in the tower opposite, holding her baby. It was 4 a.m. We stood there at our respective windows, separated by a hundred feet of expensive New York air.

The tower I live in is university accommodation; so is the tower opposite. The idea occurred that it was quite likely that the woman at the window also wrote books for a living, and, like me, was not writing anything right now. Maybe she was considering antidepressants. Maybe she was already on them. It was hard to tell. Certainly she had no way of viewing the ad in question, not without opening her window, jumping, and turning as she fell. I was her view. I was the ad for what she already had.

But that was all some time ago. Now the ad says: “Find your beach.” The bottle of beer—it’s an ad for beer—is very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue. It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal-growth section of the bookshop (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”). I find it significant that there exists a more expansive, national version of this ad that runs in magazines, and on television.

In those cases photographic images are used, and the beach is real and seen in full. Sometimes the tag line is expanded, too: “When life gives you limes . . . Find your beach.” But the wall I see from my window marks the entrance to Soho, a district that is home to media moguls, entertainment lawyers, every variety of celebrity, some students, as well as a vanishingly small subset of rent-controlled artists and academics.

Collectively we, the people of SoHo, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence—a yellow undulation against a field of blue—and painted directly on to the wall, in a bright Pop Art style. The mad men know that we know the SoHo being referenced here: the SoHo of Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the SoHo that came before Foot Locker, Sephora, Prada, frozen yogurt. That SoHo no longer exists, of course, but it’s part of the reason we’re all here, crowded on this narrow strip of a narrow island. Whoever placed this ad knows us well.

Find your beach. The construction is odd. A faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. On the one hand it means, simply, “Go out and discover what makes you happy.” Pursue happiness actively, as Americans believe it their right to do. And it’s an ad for beer, which makes you happy in the special way of all intoxicants, by reshaping reality around a sensation you alone are having. So, even more precisely, the ad means: “Go have a beer and let it make you happy.” Nothing strange there. Except beer used to be sold on the dream of communal fun: have a beer with a buddy, or lots of buddies. People crowded the frame, laughing and smiling. It was a lie about alcohol—as this ad is a lie about alcohol—but it was a different kind of lie, a wide-framed lie, including other people.

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if—as in the case of this wall painting—it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan. According to the movies it’s only our own limited brains that are keeping us from happiness. In the future we will take a pill to make us limitless (and ideal citizens of Manhattan), or we will, like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, use a hundred percent of our brain’s capacity instead of the mythic ten. In these formulations the world as it is has no real claim on us. Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths—they are all within our own power to create, or destroy. On Tina Fey’s television show 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy—the consummate citizen of this new Manhattan—deals with problems by crushing them with his “mind vise.”

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak. Jack Donaghy’s verbal swordplay with Liz Lemon was a comic rendering of the various things many citizens of Manhattan have come to regard as fatal weakness: childlessness, obesity, poverty. To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day. When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten.

And casting a shadow over it all is what Philip Larkin called “extinction’s alp,” no longer a stable peak in a distance, finally becoming rising ground. In England even at the actual beach I cannot find my beach. I look out at the freezing water, at the families squeezed into ill-fitting wetsuits, huddled behind windbreakers, approaching a day at the beach with the kind of stoicism once conjured for things like the Battle of Britain, and all I can think is what funny, limited creatures we are, subject to every wind and wave, building castles in the sand that will only be knocked down by the generation coming up beneath us.

When I land at JFK, everything changes. For the first few days it is a shock: I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street—or during any fluid-moving city interaction—unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way. I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires”—there is something sociopathic in that ambition.

It is also a fair description of what it is to write fiction. And to live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd. Objectively all the same limits are upon me in Manhattan as they are in England. I walk a ten-block radius every day, constrained in all the usual ways by domestic life, reduced to writing about whatever is right in front of my nose. But the fact remains that here I do write, the work gets done.

Even if my Manhattan productivity is powered by a sociopathic illusion of my own limitlessness, I’m thankful for it, at least when I’m writing. There’s a reason so many writers once lived here, beyond the convenient laundromats and the take-out food, the libraries and cafés. We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures. Now the energy is different: the underground has almost entirely disappeared. (You hope there are still young artists in Washington Heights, in the Barrio, or Stuyvesant Town, but how much longer can they hang on?) A twisted kind of energy radiates instead off the soulcycling mothers and marathon-running octogenarians, the entertainment lawyers glued to their iPhones and the moguls building five “individualized” condo townhouses where once there was a hospital.

It’s not a pretty energy, but it still runs what’s left of the show. I contribute to it. I ride a stationary bike like the rest of them. And then I despair when Shakespeare and Co. closes in favor of another Foot Locker. There’s no way to be in good faith on this island anymore. You have to crush so many things with your “mind vise” just to get through the day. Which seems to me another aspect of the ad outside my window: willful intoxication. Or to put it more snappily: “You don’t have to be high to live here, but it helps.”

Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next. I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists—of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals—against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university—or have sold that TV show—they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.

Feel Free, Zadie Smith

The Replacements

Jack London drinking his life away while
writing of strange and heroic men.
Eugene O'Neil drinking himself oblivious
while writing his dark and poetic
works.

now our moderns
lecture at universities
in tie and suit,
the little boys soberly studious,
the little girls with glazed eyes
looking
up,
the laws so green, the books so dull,
the life so dying of
thirst.

Charles Bukowski

The Shoelace

a woman, a
tire that’s flat, a
disease, a
desire: fears in front of you,
fears that hold so still
you can study them
like pieces on a
chessboard…
it’s not the large things that
send a man to the
madhouse. death he’s ready for, or
murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood…
no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies
that send a man to the
madhouse…
not the death of his love
but a shoelace that snaps
with no time left …
The dread of life
is that swarm of trivialities
that can kill quicker than cancer
and which are always there -
license plates or taxes
or expired driver’s license,
or hiring or firing,
doing it or having it done to you, or
roaches or flies or a
broken hook on a
screen, or out of gas
or too much gas,
the sink’s stopped-up, the landlord’s drunk,
the president doesn’t care and the governor’s
crazy.
light switch broken, mattress like a
porcupine;
$105 for a tune-up, carburetor and fuel pump at
sears roebuck;
and the phone bill’s up and the market’s
down
and the toilet chain is
broken,
and the light has burned out -
the hall light, the front light, the back light,
the inner light; it’s
darker than hell
and twice as
expensive.
then there’s always crabs and ingrown toenails
and people who insist they’re
your friends;
there’s always that and worse;
leaky faucet, christ and christmas;
blue salami, 9 day rains,
50 cent avocados
and purple
liverwurst.

or making it
as a waitress at norm’s on the split shift,
or as an emptier of
bedpans,
or as a carwash or a busboy
or a stealer of old lady’s purses
leaving them screaming on the sidewalks
with broken arms at the age of 80.

suddenly
2 red lights in your rear view mirror
and blood in your
underwear;
toothache, and $979 for a bridge
$300 for a gold
tooth,
and china and russia and america, and
long hair and short hair and no
hair, and beards and no
faces, and plenty of zigzag but no
pot, except maybe one to piss in
and the other one around your
gut.

with each broken shoelace
out of one hundred broken shoelaces,
one man, one woman, one
thing
enters a
madhouse.

so be careful
when you
bend over.

Charles Bukowski

A Call to the Manly Men

The history of the world
the history of men
overwhelming, uncontested
Alexander "the great"
Buddha and Christ
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
Moses and Mohammed
Genghis Khan
Dracula and Shakespeare
Mozart and Beethoven
Voltaire and Newton
Nietzsche and Freud
Roosevelt and Gandhi
Picasso and Tagore
Hitler and Einstein

emperors, prophets, gods
writers, philosophers
politicians, musicians
real and fictional men
poets, artists

great murderers
lone geniuses
compassionate conquerors
benevolent gods
brilliant rapists
visionary slave owners
flawless heroes
running the world
while we the minions
bow down in gratitude

we - rest of the world
we - most of the world
we - the birds, the flowers, the women
the rivers, the queer, the disabled
the children, the old, the cats
the people of of the forest
the indigenous, the sick
the poor, the slaves, the rain
the suffering, the minority
the weak
we the non-conformists
who shun your values
of power, ambition and narcissism
your ideas of progress
and the greater good
we who don't want to be gods
or to be cast in 'his' image

do we have a history?
a legacy? a story?
perhaps we need one
with different adjectives
'great', 'genius'
'philanthropist', 'mahatma'
'warrior', 'hero'
don't cut it
all this manliness
doesn't cut it anymore
we see you
and we're growing weary

The Normal Heart

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness...”

Cervantes, Don Quixote

As we walked out, my friend asks me "how many times did you cry?". I'm not sure how to answer that, she answers her own question - 3 times. The actors and crew are all there as I walk out with shy, almost guilty murmurs of "good job", "great performance", "well done". Once outside, another friend asks "what do you think?". "It was intense" is all I can think to say in the moment. It feels inadequate.

We had just finished watching a local production of Larry Kramer's play "The Normal heart" - a 2 hour play based on real events surrounding the rise of the AIDS epidemic in New York in the 80s. I didn't know this when I went in, neither the idea of the play nor that it was a recreation of Kramer's 1985 play. I didn't know that there was a 2014 film on it, also written by Kramer. The only appeal for me was the invitation of a friend and the information that this was being put together by members of the LGBTQ community. That usually means creative expression and a great atmosphere, I wasn't disappointed.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Ned weeks, a writer/reporter/almost neurotic individual who is perpetually on his toes, ready to confront, to raise his voice and to assert what he thinks is right. It is 1981, gay men are developing purple lesions and what seem to be strange but related symptoms. Doctor Emma Brookner finds herself at the center of this new disease, her patients are dying. Once the lesions start appearing, men only have a few months to live it seems. She is doing her best to keep them hopeful while she records, studies, compares, tries different things in guessing at what's going on. Emma's opinion is that this disease spreads through sexual intercourse between men and in an angry scene with Ned she tries to tell him "you must ask people to stop having sex!". Ned retaliates by pointing out the ridiculousness of the request "you want me to tell half a million gay men in this city to stop fucking?!"
This sets the stage for what we see throughout the play as Ned's forceful personality facing off against various characters in the story. We also see repeatedly, the characters stuck between a rock and hard place - both sides of the argument seem urgent and yet a choice is almost impossible.

The play goes through a period of close to 2 years. When Ned fails to get prominent gay men to take up the cause, he decides to form an organization with a few friends to alert people about the illness. The organization grows further into a support system for men who are already infected. Ned is appalled at the reaction of the local government, a reaction which involves completely neglecting the issue. He wants to call them out and he minces no words when, after a wait of many months, he gets a chance to meet the Mayor's (probably gay) assistant. Meanwhile trouble is brewing at Ned's organization, his colleagues prefer milder methods. They believe that working with the government requires patience and some amount of bowing down to bullshit. The president, Bruce Niles is himself a closeted gay man and a banker who refuses to give up the privilege of being recognized as straight. Ned and Bruce are at the center of the story and of the question of how the situation must be handled. Ned's no holds barred confrontation or Bruce's diplomatic, conservative process. This tension comes to the fore at the end of their meeting with the Mayor's assistant when Ned, almost screams at Bruce "250 people are already dead and I knew 40 of them, I don't want to know anymore!".
A glimmer of hope for reconciliation between the two appears after a heartbreaking scene where one of their colleagues, Mikey, himself a seasoned gay rights activist, has an emotional breakdown after he is overwhelmed by the tragedy, the confusion and the indifference around him, snapping at Ned for his aggression which, he believes, cost them dearly. The reconciliation never comes. The only tenderness we see between the two men is when Bruce's lover dies of the virus and he breaks down in front of Ned while describing the appalling situation around the tragedy.

The beauty of the play is that no character exists in a vacuum. Everyone's inclinations and backgrounds are explored in their social contexts. Ned with his background of therapy and sexual repression, his attraction to Bruce and then to Felix, whom he loves dearly and who is infected. His brother Ben provides an interesting social perspective of someone who is straight and coming to terms with a gay brother. Bruce with his high society position and his need to keep that intact while also trying to head a gay organization. Emma with her experience in medicine and her frustration with the establishment - their refusal to take her work seriously, their petty interests in the face of a raging epidemic. Felix, Ben, Mikey and Tommy are all wonderful in their roles and in the solid grounding they give to the central characters. They all have their moments of glory and they come out blazing.

The play speaks to us because it provides a concrete example of our tendencies in a society, in a community and in a democratic country. It brings out those essential features of protest, of resistance that all movements share - the importance of community, the apathy of governments, the Kafkaesque workings of bureaucracy, internal conflict and dogma, the place of personal ambition. The question that all movements must confront for themselves - confrontation vs diplomacy. At an individual level, we all have aspects of Ned and Bruce. The play does not take a stand on who is right, it would be impossible to do so. Instead, by placing these characters and their backgrounds in front of us it leaves us with questions. It leaves us to think about our own little versions of Ned and Bruce. This is what makes the stories of major movements important - the conflicts, the lessons, the gray area for thought and exploration.

Now, with around 40 years of hindsight, we know that both Ned and Bruce achieved something in their own ways, so did Emma. We have much to learn from these characters.

The normal heart started with being inclusive, followed up with touching nerves, breaking hearts and telling compelling stories with dedicated and intense acting. It ended with provoking discussion. It did this with a minimal set, basic costumes and plenty of local support. What do I say when I'm walking out at the end of such a play? - "good job" seems a bit silly.

The Master

Man, the master of nature
in control of everything
the cult of efficiency
with time,
with fuel and resources
with people and emotion
crafting the perfect day
planned and executed
crafting the perfect home
the perfect environment
2 inches of grass,
6 pots of plants
forests and the wild restricted
to this or that area
animals-pets, neutered
and trained and groomed
a commodity, a human `hobby'
good for entertainment
good for companionship
good for business

rules, rules, rules
to walk, to eat
to travel, to live
to exist
everything ordered
clean and sterile
sorted into categories
all that beautiful chaos
of humanity and the natural world
brought under control
and this control then sold
as the ultimate virtue
the final conquest

everything decided
by the latest tech
Man, the master of the self
self improvement and self help
the mantra and the industry
the pursuit of happiness
of feeling good
and avoiding confrontation
avoiding surprises
avoiding thinking
in a perpetual state of coddled bliss
seeking 'adventure'
seeking 'experience'
and "other cultures"
from the warm safety
of the capitalistic dream world

the dream is cracking baby
reality is oozing in!

The Workers

They laugh continually
even when
a board falls down
and destroys a face
or distorts a
body
they continue to
laugh,
when the color of the eye
becomes a fearful pale
because of the poor
light
they still laugh;
wrinkled and imbecile
at an early age
they joke about it:
a man who looks sixty
will say
I’m 32, and
then they’ll laugh
they’ll all laugh;
they are sometimes let
outside for a little air
but are chained to return
by chains they would not
break
if they could;
even outside, among
free men
they continue to laugh,
they walk about
with a hobbled and inane
gait
as if they’d lost their
senses; outside
they chew a little bread,
haggle, sleep, count their pennies,
gaze at the clock
and return;
sometimes in the confines
they even grow serious
a moment, they speak of
Outside, of how horrible
it must be
to be
shut Outside
forever, never to be let
back in;
it’s warm as they work
and they sweat a
bit,
but they work hard and
well, they work so hard
the nerves revolt
and cause trembling,
but often they are
praised by those
who have risen up
out of them
like stars,
and now the stars
watch
watch too
for those few
who might attempt a
slower pace or
show disinterest
or falsify an
illness
in order to gain
rest (rest must be
earned to gain strength
for a more perfect
job).
sometimes one dies
or goes mad
and then from Outside
a new one enters
and is given
opportunity.
I have been there
many years;
at first I believed the work
monotonous, even
silly
but now I see
it all has meaning,
and the workers
without faces
I can see are not really
ugly, and that
the heads without eyes—
I know now that those eyes
can see
and are able to
do the work.
the women workers
are often the best,
adapting naturally,
and some of these I
made love to in our
resting hours; at first
they appeared to be
like female apes
but later
with insight
I realized
that they were things
as real and alive as
myself.

the other night
an old worker
grey and blind
no longer useful
was retired
to the Outside.
speech! speech!
we demanded.
it was
hell, he said.
we laughed
all 4000 of us:
he had kept his
humor
to the
end.

Charles Bukowski

Dead and Gone

he was a normal guy
married when was supposed to
had kids when he was supposed to
was lazy about work
but loved kids, all kids
the wife was hard
he had to make do
she was, in parts -
vicious and loving
nagging and caring
a necessary pain in the ass
a pain he got used to

the grocery store guy
the plumber, the electrician
people in the mosque
and near his house
in his community
the sweeper and the guy
who cleaned the drains
he asked after them all
and heard their stories
he had no grand achievement
no awards
no big legacy
but at his funeral
all these people,
in the middle of the pandemic,
cried tears of loss
some men die young
some are immortal
he just died

The Talkers

the boy walks with his muddy feet across my
soul
talking about recitals, virtuosi, conductors,
the lesser known novels of Dostoevsky;
talking about how he corrected a waitress,
a hasher who didn’t know that French dressing
was composed of so and so;
he gabbles about the Arts until
I hate the Arts,
and there is nothing cleaner
than getting back to a bar or
back to the track and watching them run,
watching things go without this
clamor and chatter,
talk, talk, talk,
the small mouth going, the eyes blinking,
a boy, a child, sick with the Arts,
grabbing at it like the skirt of a mother,
and I wonder how many tens of thousands
there are like him across the land
on rainy nights
on sunny mornings
on evenings meant for peace
in concert halls
in cafes
at poetry recitals
talking, soiling, arguing.

Charles Bukowski

How to save the world

begin with an idea
it must be absolute conviction
so strong that it burns
not a personal idea
but one for humanity
do not listen to anything opposing
and do only what aids
on road to the one goal
learn tricks and deception
learn to lie and make money
make tactical friends
and don't bother about enemies
eliminate them or subsume them
remember, you know what is best
everyone else is in the herd
and you will be the shepherd
like god's tortured son
use them at will as cattle
make your goal noble and holy
make the herd believe that
it is essential for success
that the herd must participate
in its own nirvana
while cheering you on
the message is important
use freedom, liberty, democracy
use history and ancient glory
give everyone what they want
tell them what they should want
slay demons not enemies
black monsters of hell
be ruthless and shrewd
one day you and your caravan
will save this fucking world

We're doing what we can

"we're doing what we can" he said
he was sincere, he believed it
like the captain of the drowning ship
who minimizes casualties
this situation is worse
it is not quick death
it is the living in distress
for prolonged periods of time
slaving away in pointlessness
becoming experts at mediocrity,
learning conceit and morality
side by side
with dreams of greatness
which will never be achieved
only more dense writing
more "education"
more "progress"
more delusional captains
and battered passengers
too afraid to ask what's going on
while the rickety ship
sails the cutting edge oceans of science